New report highlights potentially hundreds of unlawful criminal record checks by employers each year and the lack of action by government in preventing them

Unlock, a national advocacy charity for people with criminal records, has today published Checked out?, a report on so-called ‘ineligible’ criminal record checks, submitted by employers and processed by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 allows some criminal records to become spent after a crime-free period. This means they are no longer disclosable – for example to employers – enabling people to move on and positively and contribute to society. For jobs working with children and vulnerable adults, spent criminal records must still be disclosed.

In 2019/20, the DBS carried out more than 4 million checks at the higher levels of enhanced or standard. Unlike basic checks, these disclose cautions and spent convictions and are legally permitted only for specified jobs and professions such as teaching, social work, accountancy or law. Carrying out a check at a higher level than permitted can be a criminal offence and a breach of data protection laws – exposing employers to financial and reputational risk. It unnecessarily prevents people with spent criminal records from gaining employment.

Despite the introduction of basic checks in 2018, Unlock’s helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls about ineligible checks. The report highlights the significant impact ineligible checks have on the lives of law-abiding people with criminal records – it estimates that over 2,000 people a year have to deal with the consequences of a caution or conviction unlawfully disclosed to an employer.

Responsibility for ensuring eligibility rests with the employer and the DBS trusts employers to request the right checks. The law is complicated, employers are rarely trained, and many show a blatant disregard for selecting the appropriate level of check. There is almost no chance of accountability and law-abiding people with criminal records are needlessly kept out of the workplace.

The report makes recommendations for government, the DBS and employers to prevent ineligible checks. These include amendments to the Police Act so employers and the DBS share liability for ineligible checks, legal protection for spent convictions and an urgent review of DBS processes for preventing ineligible checks.

Commenting on the report, Rachel Tynan, Unlock’s policy and practice lead and co-author of the report, said:

“Law abiding people with criminal records are struggling to find work as some employers are breaking the law to find out whether potential employees have ever broken the law. Ineligible checks are usually only carried out after offer, meaning the candidate has been chosen as the best person for the job, only to be rejected for an old or minor criminal record they are entitled to withhold.

“That’s bad news for them, their families and the economy – it’s got to change. This report sets out a number of recommendations to government, the DBS and employers that would turn the tide, prevent ineligible checks and improve compliance.”

For more information about the report, please contact Rachel Tynan. Email rachel.tynan@unlock.org.uk.

Notes

  1. Unlock is an independent national advocacy charity for people who are facing obstacles, stigma and discrimination because of their criminal record
  2. There are over 11 million people in the UK that have a criminal record.
  3. Unlock’s main website is www.unlock.org.uk.
  4. Download the report here: Checked out?
  5. The report has been published as part of Unlock’s fair access to employment project.

Background

  • In 2019/20, the DBS carried out 5.9 million criminal record checks – 3.86 million enhanced and 326,000 standard checks, along with more than 1.7 million basic checks. Basic checks are available to any employer (provided they set out their lawful basis for checking). Standard and enhanced checks are only available for professions or roles exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
  • A basic criminal record check reveals convictions and cautions that are unspent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. A conviction or caution is unspent for a period of time, determined by the sentence. Once a conviction or caution is spent, it no longer appears on a basic check. However, higher levels of checks (standard and enhanced checks) continue to disclose spent convictions and spent cautions. Only when a conviction or caution meets an additional set of strict technical rules can a conviction or caution be removed from a higher level of check, in line with the ‘filtering rules’.
  • The term ‘ineligible check’ refers to checks carried out at a higher level than permitted in law. This could mean an enhanced check where only standard is permitted, but the more common problem is requesting a standard or enhanced check where only a basic is permitted.

Case studies

Darren

Darren’s minor convictions were from 30 years ago and long spent but, as there was more than one conviction, they were not eligible to be removed (or ‘filtered’) from his enhanced check. He contacted us for advice when a job offer from his local council was withdrawn following what he believed to be an ineligible enhanced DBS check.

During our correspondence with the council it became clear that there was a misunderstanding of the type of work that would be eligible for an enhanced check. They said:

“Although the DBS is saying we only need a basic check, there may be opportunities that the team may have contact with children or vulnerable adults in their work and the fact that the majority of the team currently have enhanced DBS checks, then it may be a good idea to stay at this level. For example, a car parking officer may have to approach a car where a young child has been left alone”.

We went back to the council to confirm that approaching a car which has young children in wouldn’t make this type of role eligible for an enhanced check and explained the purpose of these checks. The council reviewed the role and agreed that a basic check was more appropriate but by the time the review was complete, Darren had taken another job.

Darren said: “Had the correct level of check been done in the first place, I would have been able to start the job. It took so long for them to acknowledge their mistake and I couldn’t keep waiting without a job. It’s disappointing that a big organisation like the council didn’t understand what type of checks they could do.”

Dennis

Dennis was a driver for an out of hours doctor’s service, driving doctors to appointments and waiting whilst they attended to a patient. Rarely, he chaperoned whilst the doctor carried out a procedure on the patient – this had only happened twice in the previous year.

After several months in the job, the employer decided to carry out an enhanced DBS check for his job. Dennis did not believe the job was eligible but felt he had no choice but to agree. Before the check was submitted, Dennis disclosed details of his criminal record and was suspended by his employer.

On reading the job description, we agreed that his job would not appear be eligible for an enhanced DBS check. To be eligible, he would need to be performing chaperone duties once a week or more, or at least four days in a 30 day period. In any event, Dennis was always accompanied by a medical professional who had been DBS checked and had overall responsibility for the patient. We provided Dennis with information and advice on challenging the check and offered to speak with his employer.

The employer carried out an investigation into Dennis’s concerns and confirmed that the job was not eligible for an enhanced check and they would update their policy to reflect this.

Dennis said: “I knew the job didn’t require an enhanced check and I’m pleased that [his employer] recognised that. I wanted to share my story so other people might feel they can challenge bad practice at work too.”

Danny

Danny contacted us for advice when his employer, a company selling disability aids, requested an enhanced DBS check for his role as a driver/technician, stating that he would be required to instruct and train ‘vulnerable’ adults in the use of the equipment he was delivering. Danny hadn’t received training in using equipment and, in the few weeks he had been working there, had only delivered pillows, walking sticks and wheelchairs. He felt the job would probably only require a basic DBS check and wanted to know how he could challenge the company. He had a spent conviction which he had not disclosed when applying for the job, as he was led to believe that it was a delivery driver job which would not be eligible for an enhanced check.

Danny had no choice but to agree to the enhanced check and then raise it with the DBS. He told them other drivers doing the same job were also undergoing enhanced checks. The DBS confirmed that they had put his application on hold whilst they investigated the eligibility of the check but could not do the same for the other drivers.

The DBS told Danny that his employer had given his job title as an Outreach Support Worker. This did not match his job description, qualifications or experience. He was told that the DBS did not question job titles with requesters and, on the job description provided, the role was eligible for an enhanced check. Danny decided that the only option open to him would be to arrange to speak to his employer about his conviction – who immediately terminated his contract.

Danny said: “I wouldn’t have applied for a job as a support worker – I’ve got no experience or interest in that type of work. As far as I was concerned, it was a driving job, dropping things off at the front door. None of the other drivers trained anyone either.

The DBS would not investigate why Danny’s employers provided a different job description to the one being performed. Had they investigated the other drivers’ roles and found all of them raising the same objections, they might have reached a different decision.

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Rachel Tynan